River Severn Flying Boats and Rockets!

In May 1942, six months before Churchill made his famous “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” speech at the Lord Mayor’s luncheon at Mansion House, officials in Gloucestershire County Council’s planning department were already thinking about post-WW2 reconstruction. 

The files and reports that were generated by the planning department are today held together with other archives of Gloucestershire County Council. Among them is this fascinating letter from G E Payne, the County Planning Officer, to the Air Ministry asking whether the River Severn in Gloucestershire might have the potential to become a seaplane base. At the time, Payne was the chairman of the Forest of Dean Joint Planning Committee and was thinking of ways that could improve the transport and communication links of the county. He was especially interested in the possibilities of air transport and the idea that post-war, aircraft would take over from ships for trans-Atlantic passenger services. 

A letter asking for information about a seaplane base
Gloucestershire Archives C/AP/R1/SE/4/2

During the pre-war era, long-range distance flights were undertaken by seaplanes – aka flying boats – for unlike their land-based counterparts, they were not limited by available runway lengths (the majority of which were still grass-surfaced) and could be built larger to carry large fuel loads (which also required long runways). Most of the major aviation powers developed flying boats including America, Germany, Italy and Britain. In this country, the main purpose was to maintain rapid communication links with the British Empire and the main user was Imperial Airways, which from the 1920s had developed flying routes to South Africa, India, Australia, the Far East (including Malaya and Hong Kong) and to Bermuda. In many far-flung parts of the British Empire, the ability to land and take-off from any available area of water was a distinct advantage for services to such places, many of which at the time had no airport facilities at all. This was obviously what Payne was thinking about for, on the face of it, the Severn Estuary seems an ideal place for flying boats to use and therefore a good place for a locally-based international transport hub.

A map showing airway routes in the world
Imperial Airways route map from April 1935 timetable

The words ‘certain impounding work’ in his letter clearly suggest that Payne had thought of some disadvantages – just by observing the estuary the implications of the tidal range would have been obvious. Although seemingly adequate at high water, at low water sandbanks and rock shelfs are exposed that would prohibit any landings or take-offs. Payne obviously thought that by building breakwaters or barrages at various places a good depth of water could be always maintained and these would also have the effect of calming the often rough tidal waters. It seems likely that Payne was probably thinking of something like the image below, a 1921 diagram for a Severn Tidal Barrage, whereby a flying boat base could be established in the area above Beachley (probably around Woolaston) in what is identified as a ‘Shipping Basin’ here.

A plan of the River Severn estuary
Diagram of a plan to harness tidal power on the River Severn circa 1921. Caption from Popular Mechanics Magazine 1921

However, when the Air Ministry’s Director of Operational Services & Intelligence eventually replied and provided the pre-requisites it was clear that Payne’s idea would not be feasible.  The Air Ministry stated that the minimum requirements were as follows:

  • Space for four runways 1½ miles (2.4km) long and set at least 45° apart
  • A minimum water depth of 2 fathoms (3.6m/12ft)
  • A maximum wave height of 3ft (1m)
  • Unobstructed straight-line approaches for each runway in both directions that allowed a glideslope of no more than a 1 in 40 gradient. 

The Director also mentioned that the Severn Estuary was rather exposed and noted something that perhaps Payne should have remembered, the Severn Bore! He also remarked that had the Severn Estuary been suitable than the RAF would have already established a base, as they had done at Milford Haven farther down the Bristol Channel. Payne realised that there was nowhere in the Severn Estuary from Lydney to Chepstow (his main area of concern) that had these requirements and so dropped the idea. In the event, Payne was proved right in one respect. After WW2, long range commercial passenger services did (literally) take off because many of the big long-range military bombers and transports could be adapted into civilian aircraft (examples being the Avro Lancastrian airliner from the Avro Lancaster bomber and the Boeing Stratocruiser from the Boeing Superfortress).  As a result, flying boats quickly became obsolete primarily because the development of the big land-based bombers also left a legacy of large military airfields with large runways that could now be adapted into civilian airports, so the requirement to land on water was gone.

A seaplane landing
BOAC Short S.30 Empire, G-AFKZ, ‘Cathay’, at Vaal Dam, South Africa, circa 1942 (from the collections of the Imperial War Museums IWM-CH14013 Short Empire AFKZ 205210604.jpg) – with a background like this it is easy to imagine it landing below Lydney or off Woolaston!

The idea of using the Severn as a seaplane base has never been raised again – but perhaps there is a future for one aspect of aviation in the Severn estuary. In 2015 a report by the Institute of Directors suggested that the eastern end of the Bristol Channel might make a good space launch facility and with SpaceX now making pinpoint rocket landings on floating barges who knows what we might see on the river in the next hundred years or so!

John Putley, Community Heritage Officer

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